What’s the first thing you think about when considering a location in an RPG?
There’s no one right answer to that question. A lot depends on why I’m thinking about that location at all.
Location: a place for things to happen
A location is not a simple thing to pin down. Let’s say that we’re talking about a Fantasy Game and the PCs are traveling from point A to point C. All sorts of potential locations lie in between; and that’s the conundrum: how and why should one of those potential locations be chosen over another?
I have nine reasons for choosing a location, and the nature of the location chosen will vary with that reason. IN ORDER:
- Plot needs a place to happen
- Information: the stuff of legend
- The sound of credibility
- There’s something interesting, somewhere
- Over Hill, Over Dale
- Pretty as a picture
- Where’s The Walrus?
- Thereby Hangs A Tale
- Timing is everything
Why in order? Because this is the sequence of yes-no decisions to be made. “Do I need somewhere for the next piece of plot to happen? IF NOT, is there a location convenient to relaying important information – background or otherwise – to the PCs? IF NOT…” and so on down the line.
The verbiage used to describe the reasons might seem excessively colorful, but that helps to make them memorable.
1. Plot needs a place to happen
Plots are like sharks; they need to keep moving or they will drown, or in this case, stagnate. So I’m always on the lookout for a location where the next piece of plot will fit, and can happen. The nature of that piece of plot will usually dictate what is required in a location, and it’s then a question of whether or not the next leg of whatever journey the PCs are on contains such a location.
For example, if the PCs current activities have made them an enemy that they don’t know about, and it seems time to alert them to that fact, am ambush seems like a reasonable choice. Or perhaps they are searching for something – is there somewhere suitable for it to be found? Or, if they have a valuable cargo and others know it, a different sort of ambush comes to mind. Or perhaps they need to overhear a couple of mysterious conspirators, or stumble over a criminal operation, or discover that something strange is going on in the High Reaches, or whatever.
Location choice can also alter the context of an encounter or a piece of plot. The right location can enhance a threat, or render it comedic due to the impropriety of the location. Tracking a conspiracy against the throne to an undertaker’s workshop results in a very different experience than tracking one to a cheese-maker’s workshop, especially if there are hints that Necromancy is involved – or perhaps the setting is the hint that Necromancy is involved. The wheezy complaints and idle speculations of a couple of old blow-hards is a very different thing to a plot being hatched by a wealthy landowner. You expect to find your evil wizards in a tower somewhere, or perhaps in a place of political influence somewhere, not waiting tables at an up-market diner.
2. Information: the stuff of legend
If the next piece of the plot is to occur at the PC’s destination, and there are no plot bricks to be introduced en route for future use, the next consideration is that some locations may offer the GM an opportunity to highlight or educate the players about the world or the society that they are traveling within.
Don’t just tell the PCs that the farmers are in economic distress because of a drought, let them see barren farms and dead animals. Don’t just tell them that too much wealth is concentrating in the hands of the Church because of an out-of-date tax code, take them past a resplendent cathedral decorated with gold and rich fabrics while the worshipers wear sackcloth and tattered remnants of old clothing. Don’t just tell them that there’s a lot of resentment over the latest peace treaty with their neighbors, take them into a tavern where they can hear the locals bellyaching.
Whenever I design a realm or society (and I’ve done a few here at Campaign Mastery), I always try to look for the impact of each idea on the lives of ordinary citizens or subsections of the populace. Stuffed-and-mounted Goblin Heads on the bar wall convey a lot more social information than a dry statement about the relations between the races, and do so in a far more compelling manner. There is never enough encounter space to convey everything in this respect, so no opportunity can or should be wasted.
3. The sound of credibility
What if the PCs aren’t going to be stopping anywhere thats already inhabited, and there is no opportunity to give them information of value? The next thing I look for is a location that offers a chance to bring the world to life that little bit more. Mutant Horrors in the radioactive swamp? Show them. Strange, exotic creatures in the wilderness? Show them. Do the farmers employ a three-crop rotation to improve yield? Let the PCs pass some fields and casually add that information to the description as though the characters already know it (if they would). If this would be news to them, add a casual encounter with a farmer working his field and use a conversation to work the information in. If you’re past the boundaries of civilized behavior and into a wild west dog-eat-dog environment, look for ways to show the logical consequences of that in passing.
4. There’s something interesting, somewhere
Any world should abound with natural wonders and interesting places. Almost every community in existence tries to distinguish itself in some way. Maybe there’s a natural lookout, or an interesting mountain that looks like it is made of gold, or a creek that runs blood-red every spring. This sort of thing comes in two different flavors; the first is the picturesque, exotic, or wondrous, and that is dealt with a couple of items from now. The second is that you have an idea for something interesting to happen that is suited to (or requires) a particular type of terrain. It’s hard to have a lost city turn up in a farm (though it has happened historically); it’s far more likely to occur in a desert or a jungle, because you always have to implicitly answer the question of why no-one has found it before.
You might have an idea for a fire-breathing Naga, or a blind Beholder, or a geriatric Dragon. It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s something interesting with absolutely no connection to the main plot – just a splash of color – and it needs someplace to happen. Whenever you think of an interesting idea, always think about suitable locations for it to happen.
5. Over Hill, Over Dale
Every consideration so far has been, in some measure, plot-driven – whether directly, through enhancing verisimilitude, or simply to keep things interesting. This is the last word in such locations – the place that has no function other than being a logical marker on the journey.
Unless the PCs are well-and-truly off the beaten track, there will be others who follow the same route. Who? How many? How often? If there is any level of regular traffic, establishments or whole settlements will spring up at the logical break points in the journey, and these pose opportunities to reflect that regular traffic, because the catering will always take into account the predominant clientèle.
The regularity with which these way points will be encountered bears some thought.
This is a very useful graph. I created the original version nearly 20 years ago, and I still use it to this day. The vertical axis measures how many days travel apart stops and settlements will be, on foot, at a reasonably casual pace – the sort of pace you might maintain if you were pushing a hand-cart or leading a horse with a wagon. The horizontal axis measures how far away from the Capital or largest city you are, in days, multiplied by N which is is a jigger factor that combines an overall population density rating multiplied by another factor representing the frequency of use of this particular route. I never tried to pin that population density factor to real-world numbers, lacking the demographic data to do so in any meaningful way.
The usual scale that I use for the N assessment is the number of categories of route that I want to define. inter-village path, minor trade route, major trade route, military highway, pilgrimage – that gives six, which is my usual scale. Sometimes I might want more subtle gradations, sometimes I’ll drop some of the categories and work on Tracks, Roads, Highways, and Major Arteries. As a general rule, the higher the overall population density, the more variations I’ll want to use. But I will also use a little instinct about it; this is just a guideline.
On a typical road, in a typical population, this means that the first couple of days out from the Capital there will be inns and hostelries every half-day’s travel, then spaced one day apart, then two days, then three days, and so on. On a less-used route, the drop-off will be faster, quickly reaching the limit of 7 days travel apart. In that distance, there will usually be some other reason for a community to be established, so this simply means there are no intervening stops aside from camping alongside the road. On a more heavily-trafficked road, the drop-off is a lot slower; you might easily have three or four days of inns every half-day’s travel, then another three or four days of inns one day apart, then three or four days of two-day separations, and so on.
The shape of the curve is roughly that of part of a circle until you get to the 7 day plateau. Note that this says nothing about the establishments within a large population; most large towns will have at least one inn, most cities will have half a dozen at dead minimum, probably many more. I figure at least one for each major socio-economic demographic or major race with a presence – if Elves regularly visit a city in a fantasy setting, sooner or later an innkeeper will realize that there’s money to be made catering more specifically for them as a clientèle. Maybe even two or three; you wouldn’t expect a wealthy Dwarven merchant to stay in the same establishment as a Dwarven mason or soldier.
As a side-note, if there was a royal visit at some point in the past, I will quite often have an establishment that was constructed especially for the purpose of housing the retinue, which afterwards became a more generic inn that slowly loses some of that unique character, but which retains at least a little of it.
The chief parameter dictating these locations is distance, but no-one establishing such a commercial operation would refuse to trade a little distance for a more suitable location – which means well supplied, sheltered, defensible, etc. Crossroads and natural springs or close approaches by rivers or other waterways are also vital characteristics. Again, a little commonsense goes a long way – if the average interval is half a day, a good location an hour or two to either side of that is acceptable. If the average interval is a day or two, a good location that is closer would be acceptable, but a good location that is too far away will go broke, or change in nature – there would be a lot less demand for accommodations and more demand for supplies and a well-cooked meal, since people would have camped a couple of hours short of reaching their destinations. And so on.
Another side-note for something I think I may have mentioned once or twice before – I never scale fantasy maps in absolute distances, I always use “days of travel”. One day’s march = 2 days travel, One day’s ride is three or four days travel, double that if you change mounts every few hours. It just makes life much more convenient!
6. Pretty as a picture
I’m an irredeemable collector of clip art. If I find an evocative image on the net while browsing, I’ll save it for later use or reference. On top of that, I’m fairly good at photo editing – for example, the image that I used to illustrate last week’s article on incomplete characters? The left-hand side of the photo as I found it cut off the tree branches. Expand the canvas (transparent), do a little copy-and-paste (with rotations and transparency effects) and a little spot paint here and there, then copy the whole image, then a little blue paint to match the various shades of blue in the sky and some blending and smudging to blend the blue in, and finally, paste the original back in over the top – so that I didn’t have to worry about keeping the blue out of the tree – and hey presto! Sky on all sides, and if I weren’t telling you, you would never know. A second example was shown about a month ago in my article on Image-based Narrative (this very subject) where I turned a Paris street into a Martian City.
I’m always very careful to respect the provenance of the images used to illustrate articles here at Campaign Mastery, using only images released to the Public Domain or available through the Creative Commons license, and respecting requests for attribution etc. Heck, when I used screenshots of a couple of Google searches, I was very careful to blur any faces beyond recognition out of respect for the privacy of the individuals and because I couldn’t assume model releases were available, even though the use was definitely covered under “fair use” copyright provisions. That’s also why I deliberately blurred the images not being chosen.
Of course, the larger the collection, the more reliant you are on a good method of organization, and mine is… poor, to be charitable. And grows faster than I can keep up with it. And, mostly, locked away on the drives in my still-non-functional main PC – something I hope to resolve very shortly (progress has been made!)
Nevertheless, I will quite frequently come across some picture that is so good that I will deliberately “tag” it for use in some specific way. It’s another way of manipulating the pacing of emotion in my games.
This category also contains any natural or artificial wonders, such as those I offered as part of the last Blog Carnival hosted by Campaign Mastery. This page lists the amazing array of contributions (including the ones I’m referring to here, under the heading “Specific Locations”).
7. Where’s The Walrus?
Some place names survive long after the original reason for the name has vanished. That’s something that a clever GM can occasionally play on for entertainment value. The absence of something that you expect to be there can be enough in itself to make a place notable – like a “Seal Beach” without a seal in sight, or a “Walrus Bay” without walruses.
Want to see it in action? Have your PCs stop over in an absolutely ordinary little town called “Vampire’s Creep” and watch the fun and paranoia! (You will need to come up with some legend for the origin of the name).
8. Thereby Hangs A Tale
The only notable feature in an otherwise unremittingly similar landscape is notable by virtue of its exceptionality. An oasis in a desert, a single mountain peak on an otherwise flat landscape, a tract of untamed wilderness surrounded by farmland. This is an opportunity to add to the folklore of the world, because there will always be two reasons for these exceptions: the real reason and the reason assigned by myth and legend. But even if you forgo that opportunity, exceptions are always worth mentioning because – if nothing else – they would be navigational markers.
For bonus merriment, have the exception midway between two different communities, used by both as a local landmark, but both with radically-different and equally-fanciful legends about how it came to be. It takes surprisingly little effort to convince the PCs that they will reveal a deep, dark secret if only they can reconcile the conflicting stories….
9. Timing is everything
The final reason that I have to detail a location is as a stalling tactic. If I know I need more time to prep the ultimate destination, I’ll look for an opportunity to fill time along the way with some minor side-quest or encounter – both of which need a location in which to occur.
I haven’t had to employ this tactic for a while. The last time I did so, it was a shrine with a book whose pages could not be written on, and a legend that said that only absolute truths in the right order would make a permanent impression on the parchment. The players were absolutely convinced that it was an artifact (AD&D) and that they could solve whatever the in-game mysteries were that confronted them by writing all the possible solutions in the book and seeing which one “stuck”. After three game sessions of brainstorming (and giving me all sorts of plot possibilities to work with) their paranoia about said mystery was on overload because they had passed beyond the mundane through the exotic and into the bizarre in their theories, without a “bite” from the book. Oh, and there was an order of monks who cared for the book, and who would not permit anyone to remove it.
The Priority Of Locations
So, having listed the reasons why I might consider a location to be noteworthy, I can now get back to my original question. I have three starting points that I routinely choose from:
- The logistics
- The Plot requirements
- The description
Having identified the reason that I want to make the location significant, I will ask myself whether or not that reason mandates a logistical priority above all other considerations. Sometimes the answer will be yes, sometimes no. If not, I ask the equivalent question about the plot requirements. Sometimes the answer will be yes, sometimes no, and most frequently, “partially” – indicating that some features will be natural, while others will be overridden by the plot requirements. But, in such cases, I always start with what HAS to be there, and then fill in any blank spaces. Finally, if neither of the first two priorities have put their metaphoric hands up, I reach the default, a descriptive priority.
What are the tactical aspects of the location? Is it suited for defense, or a natural staging point for an attack? Is it suitable for an ambush? Is it naturally suited to be a lair for a noteworthy creature?
In other words – who is likely to find this attractive real estate?
The location’s characteristics drive its description and plot impact, both of which are modified to fit those characteristics.
What does the plot require to happen at the location, and what are the characteristics of the location that are needed to accommodate those plot events? If the location is to be a Black Market exchange point, for example, there will have been alterations to make it more suitable for that purpose. If it’s to be a clandestine meeting place between the Princess and her Djinn lover, that will pose slightly different requirements – but it will have been chosen for its natural suitability with minimal alterations. If the plot requires the PCs to discover a Dragon’s nest with the Eggs having been stolen, that will impose a different set of requirements. And so on.
The location’s plot impact drives and alters the logistics and description.
This means that first and foremost comes the description of what’s at the location, and the logistics and plot impact will derive from that description. If the description leaves the location sheltered but vulnerable to attack, so be it. If the description leaves the location obvious and open, that’s fine too. And if the description mandates certain logistics, the location will be designed to include those logistics regardless of what might appear to be there on a map or other reference document. What transpires at the location will be driven by the description of the place, or perhaps it would be better to say that the location offers a menu of possible occurrences from which I will cherry-pick.
Places through the campaign
It’s also important to note that the treatment of locations will change throughout the course of a given campaign.
In the beginning
Early in the campaign, and while the PCs are low level, the world is new to them, and small events are more significant. Establishing the world takes a priority over anything except the immediate plot, which should also be chosen to help establish the key parameters of the game world.
The Blasé Wanderer
As the PCs progress in levels, there is less filler. I stop detailing where they are stopping for the night (unless its significant for some other reason) and only bother with locations of some significance. By now, most of the basics of the world will be known to the players, though some chapters may not yet have been exposed. If the players have had no exposure to the Elvish Forest or the Land of Faerie, I might return to more introductory habits when they first enter those regions, for example. And every now and then, when I think it warranted, I might drop in a reminder location – frequently copying whole entire tracts of description about an earlier location.
Age Shall Not Wither Them
At still higher levels, there is still more hand-waving of travel and detail of only locations of reasonable significance. The criterion is generally being able to deal with whatever is found without risk. In part, this is due to the limited playing time available for my campaigns and the desire to prioritize play – if I was running the same game every week or two, I would put more passing locations into the game, because the alternative is to telegraph play. In other words, if I’m only detailing significant locations, the players can assume that any location I detail is significant for some reason. No matter how much they try to separate player knowledge from character knowledge, this fact can’t help but influence them somewhat. I try to counter that trend with the occasional piece of misdirection – planting them in a detailed but unimportant location and then repeatedly rolling dice to see “if and when things happen”, knowing full well that nothing will occur no matter what I roll.
Ten League Boots
Much to my annoyance, the time inevitably comes when the PCs are capable of bypassing everything of significance by flying or teleporting direct from A to C. As the campaign develops, you can no longer rely on “drive-by locations”, you need to get the PCs to want to go where the next piece of plot is to happen – or have it come to them. This makes it far more difficult to casually impart information, so I have to make darned sure that I have already given the players everything I want them to know.
The consequence is that later in the campaign, I need far fewer locations but the ones I do implement need to be more logically developed, better detailed, and more purposefully presented. What few casual opportunities remain are elements of a larger whole – a street vendor location might be required for a casual encounter but it has to fit into the broader location where the PCs already are. And, while a certain level of casual encounters for the sake of “keeping the world real” will be tolerated, to a far larger extent, they will need to do double or triple duty in advancing plotlines.
Into The Epic
In time, you may find that your campaign heads into “Epic” territory, the definition of which varies somewhat from GM to GM. In general, it can be characterized as that time in a campaign where descriptions matter more to the PCs than locations, unless those locations are really unusual and attention-getting. Locations are all about one of two things: what’s happening there, or a huge gosh-wow factor that is pushing towards over-the-top. Otherwise it’s a case of “another hostile fortified position? ho-hum. I Meteor Strike the gatehouse.”
In The Service Of Adventure
GMs need to always be aware of the role that the locations they present are going to have within the adventure, and tailor the locations to match those requirements. Failure to remain aware of the changing role of locations within the game results in wasted effort by the GM and frustration on the part of the players. I know of at least one GM whose low-level D&D campaigns were much-loved but which used to fail regularly when the PCs reached 5th-to-8th level because he couldn’t get his head around the changes that he needed to be putting in place. The treatment of locations is one of those essential changes.